One Sunday afternoon in September 2019, Hèzu Kpowbié was sitting on a park bench watching his son play when he was surrounded by three police officers, guns drawn.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Kpowbié, recalling how terrified he felt at that moment.
“I was really very shocked. And still today — I am still shocked.”
Kpowbié’s experience in the years since reflects the lengthy, complicated and often futile battle waged by those who feel racially targeted by police.
The encounter took place in Repentigny, a suburb of Montreal.
Kpowbié, who is Black, was holding a letter opener his son’s friend had brought to fix a remote-control toy car when police approached, after someone called 911 reporting a man with a knife. His surprise quickly turned to fear.
Guns pointed at him, Kpowbié was ordered to the ground, handcuffed and detained in a police cruiser for half an hour, while his eight-year-old son looked on. Police gave him a $150 ticket for possession of a weapon. (A municipal court judge later threw out the ticket, and praised him for his conduct.)
WARNING | This video contains graphic footage of a confrontation with police:
Kpowbié took the case to Quebec’s police ethics commission, which handles complaints against officers. His complaint was rejected outright.
That means he never got a hearing at the next stage, the police ethics committee, a judicial body that has the power to sanction police officers.
In rejecting Kpowbié’s appeal, the commissioner wrote that “in my view, a high-risk intervention was warranted in the circumstances” and that, “I have no reason to believe that the complainant’s race or colour played a role in the manner in which the police acted in the present situation.”
Unwilling to give up, Kpowbié also brought the case to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, which ordered the City of Repentigny and the officers involved to pay him a total of $42,000. The commission also recommended police adopt a series of policies to counter racial profiling.
But decisions made by that commission are not binding. To get them to pay, Kpowbié will need the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal to rule in his favour. (He’s still waiting for a date to be set.)
11 cases in 5 years
The province’s police ethics commission has fielded an average of 156 racial profiling complaints annually over the past five years available, up until April 2022, accounting for seven per cent of all complaints.
Over that five-year period, only 11 complaints have made it to the police ethics committee — and only four of those have resulted in a police officer being disciplined, according to data compiled by CBC News.
More than half of the complaints involved Montreal police.
The harshest disciplinary action taken was against two officers who were suspended for 30 days without pay for racial profiling (another 10 for excessive force).
That was the case of Errol Burke, a Black man who was slammed to the ground, searched and handcuffed by police officers on a trip to a convenience store to buy milk in 2017.
Police had been searching for an 18-year-old suspect in a nearby stabbing who was also Black. Burke was 57 at the time.
Often, it takes years before the committee issues a ruling. Among the 11 cases, the average wait between the date of the incident and a committee ruling was nearly four years.
There are also questions about how the complaint system functions in the regions outside Montreal. Despite well-documented tensions between the police and the Black community in Repentigny, for instance, CBC was unable to find a single racial profiling complaint that reached the committee level dating back to 1991.
‘A frustrating exercise‘
Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a Montreal-based civil rights group, has been helping people who feel they were victims of profiling navigate the system for years. He said the process is slow and arduous.
“It can be a very frustrating exercise,” he said.
Niemi’s organization recently conducted its own analysis of the police complaint system. The findings mirror those of CBC, and paint the picture of a system that fails to hold police accountable for targeting racialized groups.
Recent research suggests Black and Indigenous people are far more likely to be stopped by police. Black English-speakers make up the largest portion of complainants, while Indigenous people targeted may be more reluctant to file a complaint or lack the resources to do so, Niemi said.
CRARR often sees cases where complainants fail to make headway with the police ethics commission but go on to win at the human rights commission, which in itself is beset by delays.
Niemi said the police ethics commission is short on resources, lacks diversity among its staff and is compromised by a provision of the province’s Police Act which allows officers to avoid having to testify during a police ethics commission investigation.
‘They’re there to protect their own’
Wayne King, a Black man and a father of four, has filed complaints over two cases of alleged racial profiling with the help of CRARR.
In the first case, in 2019, King said police stopped him without clear cause as he was leaving a Montreal coffee shop with his partner, who had their baby in a carrier.
King was awarded $21,000 by the human rights commission, but the case did not make it to the investigation stage of the police ethics commission.
“It just made me feel like they’re there to protect their own,” he said.
In the second instance, in 2021, King was pulled over while driving a rented luxury car. The police ethics commission immediately rejected his complaint, with police citing a provision of the Highway Safety Code that allows for random road stops.
(Last October, a Quebec Superior Court judge deemed that provision unconstitutional. The province is challenging the ruling.)
King is still waiting for a human rights commission hearing in the case.
“I feel like it’s an uphill battle,” he said, adding, “even if I lose at the end, at least I got to see it all the way through to let people know.”
The trouble with conciliation
Fernando Belton, a Montreal lawyer who handles racial profiling cases, has helped steer clients through the system and believes the complaint process needs to change.
If a complaint is accepted by the police ethics commissioner, the priority is first and foremost, conciliation — and most cases are settled in this way.
But many victims find it deeply traumatizing to sit across the table from the very officers they have accused, said Belton, who is the director of the Saint-Michel Legal Clinic.
“It’s not a space where people feel safe to actually communicate and understand each other,” he said.
Although people can refuse to go through the conciliation process, the commissioner is more likely to close the case if they don’t participate, said Belton.
If the case is not resolved after conciliation, the commissioner reviews it and decides whether it should be investigated further and sent to the police ethics committee.
But very few cases make it past this hurdle.
If they do, it can take years to resolve, which turns many clients off.
“They’re like, ‘I don’t want to go through all that, I don’t want to stay in the system for that long,'” said Belton.
It also doesn’t help when people see how few officers are reprimanded, adds Belton, which he believes has contributed to the Black community’s mistrust of police.
Province doesn’t address criticisms
Both the police ethics commissioner’s office and Public Security Minister François Bonnardel declined an interview.
In an email, Michelle-Audrey Avoine, a lawyer at the commissioner’s office, said each complaint is “rigorously analyzed.”
Avoine said that while the conciliation process can be stressful, it is an important tool that gives complainants the opportunity to express themselves and make the police aware of what they went through.
This can give police a better understanding of how their interventions impact citizens and can change the way police operate in the future, Avoine said.
She added that proving in court that racial profiling took place is not easy and that the perception of having been profiled is not sufficient evidence.
Roxanne Bourque, a spokesperson for Bonnardel, did not answer specific questions about whether the provincial government would put more resources into the commission or amend the Police Act to force officers to testify during a commission’s investigation.
Instead, she pointed to a recent commitment by Bonnardel to expand police training against racial bias and better track racial profiling data.
‘I hope that the fight will continue’
Two years after Kpowbié’s encounter with police, a Black man, Jean René Junior Olivier, was shot dead by police in Repentigny.
His mother had called police for help because he appeared to be having a mental health crisis.
He was holding a knife, and his mother said he seemed to be hallucinating. Police shot him three times. No charges have been laid in the case.
While the two cases aren’t entirely similar, Kpowbié believes if his own complaint had been taken seriously — and police had made changes to how they respond — Olivier’s death could have been prevented.
Despite his experience, he encourages other people in the Black community to make a complaint to the police ethics commission.
Even if it doesn’t go further, the complaint will be part of their statistics.
“I hope that the fight will continue and one day things will change,” said Kpowbié. He said that for months after his own encounter, his son was so traumatized he slept with his mother every night. His son is still afraid of police officers, he said.
“What happened to me, I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. I don’t want that to happen to my kids. I don’t want that to happen to their kids.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.